Little baby boy plays with his shaker toy in his pram

Musical Milestones for Infants and Toddlers

Musical development from birth to age 5 is a wonderful process to watch unfold if you know what to look for. According to Dr. Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain On Music, the brain undergoes a period of rapid neural development during the first five years of life, so music heard during this time forms the basis for what we like, what moves us, and how it moves us.

In this post, I’ll share what to expect from infants and toddlers as they develop musically.

Early Musical Exposure Sets the Tone for Life

Each child moves at her own pace determined by a combination of genetics and environment.  But, the earlier you start enriching your child’s musical environment, the greater the potential impact will be. In fact, research shows that enrichment during infancy development is particularly powerful (see Musical Milestones for Infants below).

Children raised in an enriched musical environment find it easier and more pleasurable to learn to play an instrument. They also have a greater understanding of music and can derive more pleasure from music for the rest of their lives. So, sing and dance with your baby as much as you can during his first few years of life. 

Musical Milestones for Infants (Birth to 12 Months)

During the first months of life, an infant’s brain is absorbing the sounds around him. By the end of that first year, the brain starts to prioritize, building greater sensitivity to familiar sounds and less ability to distinguish unfamiliar sounds. Based on phonetic perception and brain development research, we believe that regular exposure to a variety of musical sounds is critical during the first year of life.

Musical milestones you may observe from your child from birth to 12-months include:

  • Making eye contact when she hears music played or when being sung to
  • Moving arms and legs or rocking her body in response to rhythmic sounds for short amounts of time
  • Smiling in response to music
  • Engaging with shaker type instruments for short amounts of time
  • Babbling in response to music in short bursts and at whatever pitch is easiest to create
  • Listening and paying attention to tonal and rhythm patterns even though she is not singing them back

Musical Milestones for 1-Year-Olds

With emerging language skills, walking, and the ability to stay on task for longer periods of time, 1-year-olds are physically much more engaged with music than infants. Now, the pitch of their vocalizations start to reflect the songs they are singing. We don’t expect 1-year-olds to sing in tune, but their vocalizations will change from being monotone to including high and low notes. Rhythmically, they will often dance and play instruments with a strong sense of beat, but that beat will usually be unrelated to the music they are listening to.

During music time, you may observe your 1-year-old reacting in new ways by:

  • Echoing tonal and rhythm patterns with limited accuracy
  • Adjusting pitch up and down, not necessarily matching the actual notes
  • Changing movement in response to tempo of music – fast to slow
  • Moving his body in response to rhythmic sounds
  • Playing with bells, egg shakers, rhythm sticks and other props for an extended time, but usually not in sync with the music unless it is by chance
  • Vocalizing with short babbles to entire phrases with lyrics
  • Suggesting activities and lyrics for songs when the teacher asks for substitution ideas

musical milestones for infants and toddlers

Musical Milestones for 2-Year-Olds

Starting at approximately age 2, children will begin to create music with some accuracy without live or recorded musical support. Children exhibiting this behavior are beginning to audiate. Audiation is the ability to hear and understand music when the sound isn’t physically present. Audiation is to music what thinking is to language.

When participating in musical activities for kids, you may observe your 2-year-old exhibiting new behaviors by:

  • Echoing tonal and rhythm patterns with increasing accuracy
  • Singing short phrases of a song in tune, with the remaining notes not in tune
  • Distinguishing between different voices and instruments
  • Demonstrating rhythm with body movements that will sometimes be in tempo to music
  • Enjoying marching, walking, dancing, jumping, running, twirling, skipping, tip-toeing, finger plays, and other physical activity while listening to and creating music
  • Enjoying playing a wide range of rhythm instruments that will sometimes be in tempo to music
  • Singing lyrics with increasing ease and enjoyment and singing short phrases up to entire songs with correct lyrics

musical milestones for infants and toddlers

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